Ground nesting birds and dogs on reserves

© Martin Bennett

Spring is on its way - and so are lots of baby birds. Keep dogs on leads and keep them safe.

With snowdrops and primroses in flower and a constant chatter from garden birds there are many indicators that spring is tantalisingly close, bringing a renewed enthusiasm for migrating outside and exploring the best of Hampshire’s countryside. Imminently the first sand martins will be at Testwood Lakes and expect to hear singing Chiffchaff, which for me personally marks the start of spring and that marker for the bird breeding season. The Trust is fortunate to manage some of the county’s most important sites for birds, benefiting from a wealth of management experience and targeted conservation measures.

With spring on the horizon it is not surprising that many visitors to the countryside automatically seek the ‘wilder’, more sensory rich places such as the Trust’s nature reserves, the Solent coast, New Forest or north Hampshire heathlands. With a growing population and an increasing urban edge to our wilder places this inevitably brings challenges for wildlife and the managers of the land. There is no starker example than the current status for many of our ground nesting bird species. These include species which bring our highest conservation designations and protections, such as the nightjar or woodlark. Both are synonymous with the heathlands of the New Forest or Wealden Heaths in north Hampshire.

In recent years both species have nested at Emer Bog and Baddesley Common. The reserve is a wonderful fragment of the once more expansive New Forest, which stretched eastwards from the Test Valley. Despite much progress expanding the heathland area and enhancing wood pasture the Trust has been concerned with the potential impact that visitors may be unknowingly posing to ground nesting birds. Despite a good availability of breeding habitat the low breeding success for wood lark and nightjar has been notable. Observations from staff and volunteers give good grounds to suspect that dogs off leads and public access away from the rights of way and permissive routes may be causing unsustainable levels of disturbance.

Ground nesting birds are extremely vulnerable during the breeding season. Disturbance, particularly from dogs, will flush birds from their nest and prevent them from settling leaving their eggs unattended and exposed. The impacts include:

• Birds failing to nest or eggs failing to hatch

• Chicks dying from cold or lack of food

• Nests becoming vulnerable to predators

Emer Bog & Baddesley Common is one of many Trust sites where this scenario is a cause for concern. On this reserve the Trust will now be asking for dogs to be kept on leads between 1st March and 31st August in order to assist the breeding success for two of our most distinctive breeding birds. Elsewhere this could include skylark, meadow pipit or on the New Forest, the county’s remaining stronghold of curlew.

We hope that visitors will support us with our requests at respective sites an keep to footpath and tracks. Our members can play an important role helping to communicate the importance of sensitive behaviour on our best places for wildlife.